When it was time for my wife and I to pick an education strategy for our son, we were pretty lucky. That's not because we live in an area with "good public schools"—an eternal mantra for some of my friends when they go house-hunting. In fact, the local district public schools are pretty mediocre at best, and they teach in the usual fashion, which works for some kids and not for others. But we have a good selection of charter schools representing a range of education philosophies, a decent Catholic school, and an international baccalaureate school launched by the district to compete with the charters. We also have homeschooling in all of its various flavors, and, in Arizona, unburdened by much in the way of red tape. That's a decent menu from which to choose, in a rural area or anywhere else. Except… much of that menu is at risk of being homogenized and standardized under pressure from new Common Core standards. Those standards, distributed nationally but imposed by state officials, are already changing the way students are taught at my son's charter school.
There's a lot of misinformation about Common Core, up to and including the idea that it's a federally developed curriculum chock full of politicized takes on literature, history or what have you. In fact, it's not federal and it's not a curriculum. Common Core was commissioned by the National Governors Association and the Chief Council of State School Officers to "provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers," as the mission statement puts it. Adopting or not adopting the standards for public schools is a state decision, and 46 states have done so.
That's not to say the feds aren't playing a role. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan lashes out at critics of the standards as "fringe groups" while his department uses its "Race to the Top" funding to encourage the adoption of Common Core standards. The U.S. Department of Education also plays a major role in designing assessments for Common Core standards. So, while the standards are not federally sourced, they're definitely peddled by D.C.
And those standards are standard. That's the whole idea. They detail what kids are supposed to be learning, grade by grade. Secretary Duncan, after attacking critics of Common Core, dreamily sketched a scenario in which "the child of a Marine officer, who is transferred from Camp Pendleton in California to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, will be able to make that academic transition without a hitch, instead of having to start over in a widely different place academically."
That's a fine vision of truly standardized factory-style education from sea to shining sea, but not everybody is looking for schools that teach exactly the same thing at exactly the same speed to achieve the same goals. The Montessori approach, for example, has gained wide popularity because it lets students set their own pace for learning material. Not surprisingly, there's a ferocious debate among Montessori advocates over whether they can "align" (the educational term of art for bringing teaching into compliance) with Common Core and still remain true to their educational philosophy. At Montessori Madman, Aidan McAuley asks:
The first question I have is whether a government should create or even suggest what types of content curriculum should include. When a government determines curriculum it is inherently placing more value on some types of content and less on other types. There are two problems with this: 1) It assumes government somehow knows which content will provide the most return to its economic engine in the future (this is impossible to know) and 2) it creates an impersonal culture of education derived from logistics and efficiencies built on the false premise that all children learn in the same way and should know the same things by a certain age. A child is not a product to be manufactured by a government and should not be commoditized as such.
Waldorf is another child-directed educational philosophy favored by families seeking an art-and-aesthetics-driven alternative to the traditional classroom setting. If anything, it's even less of a natural fit with Common Core than is Montessori.
My son's charter school focuses on rigorous academics. Even so, as third grade kicked in this year, so did a lot of tears during homework time. Tony's teacher explained to us that the kids are having a rough time, especially with math, because they didn't just jump up to third-grade lessons and expectations as usual, but are now expected to meet Common Core standards. We may have picked a charter, but it's publicly funded, and so the new standards apply.
The tears weren't too surprising, as it turned out, given so much of the go-team, high-pressure, compete-or-die messaging behind Common Core.
So we sat down to help him with the concepts. And then we started Googling those concepts so we could understand them to explain them to our son. And then we looked up the Common Core standards. States may make adjustments to the standards as needed, although the Arizona implementation (PDF) doesn't look much different than the national model.
"Pre-algebra?" my wife, a pediatrician who deals with children and tracks their physical and mental growth every single day, asked. "I'm not sure third-graders are developmentally ready for this. Their brains may not be able to handle it yet."
But ready or not, my son is held to those tear-inducing standards—the identical standards that bind his friends at the International Baccalaureate school, and the Montessori charters in town, and the district schools, and the Waldorf charter down the road. Forget educational emphases, or philosophical differences over the pace at which different children should learn. The benchmarks will be met, or else.
Writing at redefinED, Cato Institute education analyst Jason Bedrick put the point rather aptly.
Common Core-aligned tests (particularly college entrance exams) will essentially dictate content: what concepts are taught when and perhaps even how. It's as though Apple told app-designers they could make any kind of app they want so long as all the apps perform the same basic function, operate at the same speed, and cost the same amount. Of course, they're welcome to vary the color scheme.
Education Week's Katie Ash pointed out:
"Charter schools throughout the country are coping with myriad challenges in preparing for the Common Core State Standards, an effort that could force them to make adjustments from how they train their teachers to the types of curriculum they use to the technology they need to administer online tests…
Many of the academic, financial, and administrative issues charters face closely mirror those of their regular public school counterparts, including concerns about the high costs of implementing the standards and the challenges of putting the technological infrastructure in place for online testing. Charter advocates have complained for years that they have not received funding comparable to that of regular public schools, which could pose an additional burden.
Plus, questions remain about whether the common-core standards will bolster or hinder the independence and flexibility that charters see as their greatest strengths.
Under the circumstances, "Waldorf," Montessori," "traditional academy" and "IB" risk becoming Coke vs. Pepsi brand names peddling similar products—assuming they can even survive the transition costs.
Private and religious schools, while mostly exempt from legal mandates to adopt Common Core, are also under pressure to toe the line. Some that accept tax-funded vouchers are required to adopt the standards to continue in such programs. Others find that non-Common Core-compliant textbooks are becoming difficult to find. And the biggest motivation might be the move by college entrance exams to test for mastery of Common Core standards.
Is there any refuge left for families seeking an education not driven by one-size-fits-all benchmarks?
Well, many companies that provide homeschooling materials proudly advertise their intent to ignore Common Core, and the names of such companies (as well as those aligning with Common Core) are collected and disseminated by independent-minded activists.
For families that don't care for rigid, cookie cutter standards, the requirements for personalized education in the years to come may resemble those for so much of what matters in life: If you want it done right, do it yourself.